Friday, March 3, 2017

What We Have is a Failure to Communicate

There are few sounds that instill a sense of foreboding more so than the Emergency Alert System tones. Our response (well mine anyway) is Pavlovian, which I suppose is a good thing...however, recent events beg the question, what happens when these alert messages come too late or not at all, and who’s to blame?

Crisis communication and emergency notification are continual challenges for city and county agencies because when they get it right no one knows it, but when it goes wrong, the results play out publicly.

Issuing a warning isn’t easy or straightforward. In order to reach people, you need the means to do so, whether it’s a reverse 911 system, the Emergency Alert System, a network of sirens, or some other mass notification means, you need a way of sending a message. Then you have to account for the different languages spoken in your communities, or more specifically, the languages in the area you're notifying. In Alameda County alone (where I live) there are at least 53 different languages spoken; once you’ve figured out where those languages are spoken, you're halfway there. Next, you have to craft a message that concisely gets your point across and does so in a way that works in the languages you need to contact. Finally, when crafting your messaging and selecting the mechanism for distribution, you need to take into account that some of your population may not be able to read, have a hearing impairment, have a cognitive impairment, have issues with mobility, don’t have a computer or smart phone, or access to cable or news radio.

And while you might think that if the process were to breakdown, the point of failure would be in overlooking one of the aspects of communication mentioned above; however, as recent events illustrate (Oroville & San Jose), the delay often comes in hitting send.

Like most things related to public safety, there's a lot of trust involved; but trust is fickle under the best of circumstances, and trust in government even more so. Maintaining that trust requires prudent judgement, especially if you’re the one in charge of making the ‘go / no go’ decision on warning people in advance of an emergency, because what if you’re wrong? What if variables suddenly change, what if the message doesn’t have the intended effect, or people don’t get the message at all?

In 2011 Hurricane Irene did a great deal of damage in the Catskills Region of New York State, significantly impacting the State of Vermont and many other places along the eastern seaboard and Caribbean. However, even in the face of Irene being the 7th costliest Hurricane to spin through the Atlantic, what many took away from that experience was that Hurricane Irene was the storm that wasn't. The Mayor's Office in New York City took a hit, the media took a hit, and the credibility of those responsible for public safety was dinged for over-reacting.

In 2014 Hurricane Sandy was forecast to hit New York...similar warnings were issued by the Mayor’s office, the media, and social media that a Hurricane with significant storm surge was going to impact New York City and Long Island, those warnings largely fell on deaf ears.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Which brings us to the handling of the Oroville Dam Crisis, which is summed up best in the following:

                              KC Green

Understanding that the situation in Oroville was constantly evolving means some slack must be given, with flow rates over the unknown and untested emergency spillway being a giant question mark. It doesn't however change the fact that not four hours before the evacuation order was issued, the public was told that everything was under control...when clearly it wasn't.

To go from 'everything is fine' to having the next communication most people receive being this, is problematic:

A similar situation followed shortly after in San Jose, CA when the Coyote creek overflowed its banks requiring the evacuation of 14,000 people from nearby subdivisions. This time however, instead of being told to evacuate at the 11th hour, the city didn't issue anything and residents are understandably upset.

If communicating risk and managing expectations is what this is all about (and in my opinion, it is), then how do we expect our elected officials and managers to balance between being too 'knee-jerk' to being 'too little too late,' if both risk and expectations are inherently subjective? It feels like a lose-lose situation to me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not begrudging anyone their righteous indignation for how the above situations were "managed"…and I don’t think this is something that should be glossed over. What I do have agita about though, is having people believe that pointing the blame solely at elected officials is an answer that will bring about change.

I believe that improvements need to be made in how governments communicate risk and to be better in transparently communicating that risk regardless of circumstance. I also believe the public needs to take a hard look at what they can do to better prepare themselves in advance of future events. Blaming others for our ills is a national pastime, but when we fail as individuals to examine what we currently do (which is often very little) to what we know should be done, we are dooming ourselves to repeat these scenarios again and again. 

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